While driving in the car– after being called ‘son’ or ‘little mister’ during four different retail excursions in one hour– and genuinely baffled, Grace asked me-
GRACE: Am I a girl or am I a boy?
I wonder if most of us who get this question nowadays silently thank or curse Caitlyn Jenner. While I’m all for people being who they are, I don’t care to be a Kardashian commercial for making transgender issues trendycoolfashionforward or Republican. I know trans people, and all Caitlyn did was make it a very expensive beauty contest. Never have trans issues become more simultaneously mainstream and shallow. I digress. I paused.
ME: Who do you feel like?
She sucked on her finger and thought for one hot second.
GRACE: I feel like I’m a girl.
And what did I say because I’m an asshole and can’t leave well enough alone?
ME: Okay. And that might change so that’s okay, too.
I was so terrified of losing my daughter to the Princess Phase that I gender-neutralized us into the Penis Phase. Think I’m kidding? Here’s the page I created a year ago proudly trumpeting the perfect gender neutral wardrobe and feminist friendly toy quiver on a budget.
I needn’t have worried. Frozen made not a dent on Grace. The Little Mermaid gave her screaming nightmares for two long weeks. In an attempt to override the female-impersonator-esque octopi torturing her (and our) sleep, I showed her Cars, a villain-free cartoon, and promptly watched my daughter go all NASCAR on me.
What I should have done was devise a DIY creative solution, like visit an aquarium to show Grace how harmless octopi truly are without eyeliner and decolletage. What I did do was let her watch Mater’s Tall Tales endlessly. Christmas 2014 was a Lightning McQueen Christmas– Grace wallowed in backpacks, hats, pajamas, gloves, slippers and toys. I felt proto-feminist upon finding the Etsy dame making Lightning McQueen undies for girls.
Honestly, I would not have been that gallant if she was Frozen or princess-obsessed. I would have put the brakes on all Frozen accoutremount because I’m a feminist who DESPISES the Princess Phase.
Now I realize I was doing my own gender stereotyping.
What I should have been was an equal-opportunity-pop-culture-marketing-hater. Usually, I never purchase or wear any item that advertises a movie or TV show or commercial brand. I let her embrace ‘boy’ hero culture while scorning ‘girl’ hero culture. Fact is, gender stereotyping cuts both ways.
And many ‘conscious’ moms do this– we roll our eyes in horror at our insane snot-nosed princesses with tutus on their heads, clip clopping like drunk ponies in plastic kitten heels– but if our sons wanted to wear Princess dresses, we’d feel almost morally obligated to get them a dress up chest so they could ‘express themselves’ to their fullest.
So, why can’t we let our daughters do it? I don’t know but when my girl shows up dressed like Steve Irwin on safari and only plays with boys and dump trucks, hipster-feminist moms fall all over themselves with political correctness.
MOM: I think that’s GREAT. Good for YOU. It’s just a phase. You know that, right? And if it’s not… then hey, awesome! Never been a better time to be trans, right?
It’s my fault Grace’s hair is ‘boy’ short. I didn’t know enough about black hair to grow her hair long enough when she started preschool. Watching Grace stare at the girls with the long silky hair spilling out of barrettes reminded me of my sad days as a little girl with ‘bad hair’ that was always in a pixie or bowl cut. My heart ached when Grace whispered, her warm fat hands on my cheeks–
GRACE: Mom, when is my hair going to fall in my face?
But even I know enough to know that even I can’t make my daughter transgender any more than I can make her have white girl hair.
Three weeks later, she was eating her oatmeal.
GRACE: So, I decided. I’m a boy now.
Is my daughter really feeling like she’s a boy? Or is she caving into who everyone else assumes she is when they cheerfully label her ‘son’?
Sometimes I correct people and sometimes I don’t. I am mostly puzzled why people need to slap gender on a 3 year old. Recently, in a Brooklyn playground, a large boy of maybe 10, pointed to Grace and turned to me-
BOY: Is that a boy? That’s a boy.
ME: No. That’s my daughter.
BOY: She’s a boy. She’s not a she.
ME: I know she has short hair but she’s a girl.
BOY: That’s a boy. I’m calling that a boy.
ME: You can call her whatever you want, but why does it matter so much to you?
He eyed me like I owed him money, then lumbered off.
Two weeks later, while going to the bathroom Grace grinned at me.
GRACE: I’m a boy, okay? So let’s pretend I have a peanuts.
Staring at her beautiful face, I strove for zen buddhist non-attachment regarding whoever my child is or wants to be. Laughing, she turned her nakedness towards the toilet and chattered about how fun it must be for Marty and Dad to pee through their ‘peanuts’. She pointed to her vagina.
GRACE: This is where my peanuts should go. Okay, Mom?
It just so happens that I was reading FAR FROM THE TREE, a fascinating and immense book about the repercussions in families when children don’t resemble their parents. Chapters are titled, Deaf, Dwarf, Autism, Prodigies, etc. Whoever gave it to me must have assumed there’d be a chapter on adoption. Andrew Solomon pretty much kept the book about biological families, but he is such an engrossing writer, I couldn’t put it down. I was knee deep in the Transgender chapter when Grace started her Penis Phase.
Based on Far From The Tree, and knowing a mother with a trans child, Grace didn’t match ‘typical’ trans children behavior. Many trans children passionately resist being dressed in their natal-gender, or natal-gender toys, as early as one year old. Grace more than endured dresses, nail polish, jewelry, especially stick-on earrings, until around age 3. Wikipedia’s definition of transgender is that gender self-identity is fairly well established by age 3.
With Grace other trans tendencies match up. She has always favored ‘boy’ toys– building blocks, cars, all things sports- skateboards, soccer, hockey, baseball. All her Halloween costume choices have been male– that is, if you consider Elmo a bastion of masculinity- but Lightning McQueen and Batman are rife with the macho. Grace has never done dolls, stuffed animals, headbands or bows. Her current besties are 2 boys. She points to Marty’s shoes and says, “Get me those”.
But the interesting thing about Grace either wanting or pretending to be a boy is whether this is a real desire coming from inside her or if it’s her caving into society’s assumption that a girl with short hair and jeans must be a boy. Is her penis phase nature or nurture? Or a combo plate of the two?
Please, PLEASE don’t feel like you have to tell me it’s a phase, because I WANTED TO BE A NUN for at least a year. And even if it’s not a phase I feel guilty because if I knew how to do her hair, maybe she would be called a girl, and maybe she’d feel good about herself as a female.
But then again, I’m no role model…
My personal style is the mid-life marriage of Anybodys from West Side Story and a middle aged Scout Finch, if she grew up to be a retired gym teacher. I don’t model ‘femme’ behavior for Grace. As an experiment, I started wearing skirts, stuff in my hair, jewelry and make up to see if it influenced Grace’s style. My husband was pleasantly suprised but Grace didn’t notice or care.
I started giving her dresses away to friends with daughters, because Grace had outgrown them without ever having worn them. Last week, I was in her closet (no pun intended) and she whispered, full of mischief.
GRACE: Hey! Let’s surprise Dada. I’ll put on a dress!
Acting all casual, I pulled out a deep ocean blue sundress that I adore on her. She threw it on, then sneaked into the kitchen, where Andrew puttered. He actually gasped when he saw her.
ANDREW: Grace. You look so–
Before he could utter ‘beautiful’, she whipped the dress off like it was on fire. I asked her what bothered her about the dress. She pointed to a waist seam scraping her belly.
GRACE: Pants don’t do that.
Of course, if Grace is a boy trapped in a girl’s body, I will support his/her transition as if it were my own. But, I preferred raising a girl. Grace was born the week Trayvon Martin’s murder woke most white Americans up to the massive divide between the value of a white life versus the value of a black male life.
I confess I was relieved I had a girl instead of a boy. Raising a black son is a whole other level of high risk parenting. I thought I was dodging a bullet (literal and metaphorical) when I was given a girl to raise. Our future will be… even more interesting than I initially expected it to be. But it’s a phase, right?